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Monthly Archives: August 2012

In my house, we have a few Christmas rituals, including a slate of television shows and movies we must watch on or near the holiday.  The shows are sacrosanct; “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “The Grinch.”  The movies have always included such staples as A Christmas Carol (the George C. Scott version) and A Christmas StoryIt’s a Wonderful Life tends to be seen bi-annually, and it can be watched at Thanksgiving.  The most recent additions have been Elf and, of course, that holiday heartwarmer, Die Hard

My boy and I gave A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas its audition.  Harold and Kumar are much funnier than Cheech and Chong, and in this third installment of their stoner oeuvre, a baby gets stoned, does coke, and ecstacy; Neil Patrick Harris attempts to pleasure himself on an unsuspecting chorus girl who he is massaging (the joke? Doogie’s Howser’s homsexuality is really just a ruse to take advantage of vulnerable women); the 3D is used mostly for the shooting of bodily fluids at the screen; Harold gets his penis stuck to a cold pole ala’ A Christmas Story; and then he shoots Santa in the head.

Let’s just say it’s on the bubble.

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Riveting, though a little soulless, this dystopian thriller mixes some Lord of the Flies with Logan’s Run and The Running Man.  It is anchored by Jennifer Lawrence’s strong and touching performance (Lawrence was deservedly nominated for best actress in Winter’s Bone). 

It is the future.  The “haves” live in splendor, wealth and fashion, while the “have nots” reside in 1 of 12 poorer districts, which, at some point, rebelled against the central authority.  As s punishment/control mechanism, the central authority conducts an annual Hunger Games, where 2 teens from each district are selected by lottery.  They are then sent to the equivalent of The Emerald City for training and gussying up as if they were to meet the great and powerful Oz.  Instead, they are offered up in an elaborate ritual, televised for the masses and announced by two Ryan Secrests (Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones), wherein they are released in the wild to fight to the death.  Lawrence volunteers after her younger sister is chosen.  Traps abound, and aid can be given by wealthy viewers who “favor” their champion (for example, Lawrence is injured, but a patron sends her healing ointment via mechanical device as she huddles in a tree).  The orchestrator of the games (game master Wes Bentley and evil sage Donald Sutherland) can also tweak circumstances and change rules to amp interest and/or for political reasons.        

I was totally hooked, and the addition of a wisened and cynical Woody Harrelson as an advisor to Lawrence (he was a winner from her district and he is clearly scarred by the experience), as well as Lenny Kravitz as her charm/clothing consultant (the kids have to do a dog-and-pony show ala’ “American Idol” so the viewers get to know them) are substantial. 

The lack of background as to how a society engineering  these games came to be is problematic, and the film’s treatment of the powers-that-be is glancing.  There is also a fair amount of discomfort as you find yourself rooting for one child to kill another.  The New Republic’s Tim Noah high-handedly called it “morally repugnant” because the film “wants to have it both ways.  It wants us to register severe moral disapproval of a society that would require children to hunt one another as if they were woodland creatures. But—because it also wants to be an entertainment with a sympathetic heroine and some good old-fashioned suspense—The Hunger Games also invites us to root for the right person to win the competition by, um, killing other children.”  I think Noah is being a bit hysterical here, going overboard as to how the filmmakers want us to be repulsed by the concept of The Hunger Games.  He’s wrong; the games themselves are a brilliant vehicle so fantastical that having to expend energy on their moral condemnation is like insisting an audience object to Eastwood’s brutality in Dirty Harry even as he metes it out to the bad guys.  Who has the time to be so scrupulous?

But Noah identifies how the movie lets you off the hook by making a few of the combatants so loathsome you feel better about your bloodlust (“The nice (usually younger) kids, whom she tries to save, all get killed by others. The few she must kill are all nasty preppies apparently raised from birth to be smug, violent and cruel”).  

It would have been more honest to have Katniss kill someone neutral, if not sympathetic, but there are sequels to be had here.

Splash put Tom Hanks on the map as a leading man, though he was not yet filled-in and substantial.  Instead, Hanks was mannered in the way an actor can be after a long stint on a sitcom (Hanks was one of the Bosom Buddies from 1980 to 1982).  The film was also Ron Howard’s biggest feature, and its success would launch his career as the director of competent, workmanlike, earnest and generally dull films.

Hanks plays a love-phobic NYC businessman (derived from a childhood trauma – he fell off a Cape Cod ferry and encountered a mermaid).  In the depths of despair over his romantic failures, he returns to Cape Cod, falls in the water again, and is again rescued by the mermaid, now grown up (Daryl Hannah), who follows him to New York.  She is pursued by a cruel scientist (Eugene Levy), captured and probed to the point of sickness (ala’ E.T.) and then is busted out by Hanks, his brother (John Candy) and a repentant Levy.

Almost 30 years later, it’s a shock to see such a callow and obnoxious Hanks.  His voice is whiny, his character churlish and childish, and he seems too much the boy for the part, light as it is.  Perhaps because a mermaid has no experience with men, she just presumed Hanks was a good catch (ba-dump) but he is not.  He’s aggravating and surprisingly unfunny.

The same cannot be said for Candy, who steals the movie as the heavy, schmoozing, hard drinking,  yuk-yukking brother, excited to have one of his letters printed in Penthouse.  Levy is also good as the nerdly, bitter scientist, and Hannah is appropriately innocent and glowing as the fish-out-of-water.

It’s a cute movie, no more, but it ends in an uninentionally ridiculous fashion.  Hanks jumps in the water, making the choice to live the rest of his live with Hannah under the sea (he cannot, for reasons unexplained, ever return to land).  The credits roll and Hanks and Hannah swim the ocean as she shows him her world.  She has a big fin, he does not (when she was on land, when dry, she had legs and what goes along with them when they meet, and they were able to have a lot of sex).  Her world is murky and humdrum.  “See, this is the ocean floor.  And there is a conch.  And there are some fish.”  And what will Hanks eat?

“This was a poor choice.”

This is a meaty, engrossing crime picture, right in Martin Scorsese’s wheelhouse.  Jack Nicholson is a Boston crime boss who has a quasi-adopted son/mole in the Boston PD (Matt Damon).  In that same department, a small unit (headed up by Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg) is set up to get Nicholson, and they recruit a police academy trainee (Leonardo DiCaprio) who has one leg in the tough streets of Southie (his dad’s side) and another in the upper crust of Boston (his mom).  Meanwhile, a second task force, headed by Alec Baldwin, is also trying to get Nicholson and can’t get a handle on why they are thwarted at every turn.  DiCaprio is “erased” from police files, purposely gets arrested, and infiltrates Nicholson’s organization, which is populated by colorful, brutal goons (Ray Winstone, David O’Hara), in order to identify the mole.  Meanwhile, Damon keeps screwing Baldwin’s pooch.

A cat-and-mouse hunt ensues, as Damon searches for DiCaprio and vice versa.  Damon is also dating a psychologist (Vera Farmiga) who treats cops and ex-cons, including DiCaprio.

Almost to a person, the performances are rich and rough.  DiCaprio is now in full bloom, grown out of the Titanic baby face and having just previously offered two nuanced and substantial performances in The Aviator and Blood Diamond.  Nicholson is bloody and funny, and, well, Nicholson.

All the supporting characters are strong and natural save for Farmiga (she’s too feminine for the role and when she becomes infatuated by a clearly unstable DiCaprio, it is unconvincing) and Wahlberg, who, ironically, was nominated for best supporting actor.  He yells an awful lot and delivers a few speeches, but volume and line memorization do not deserve a nomination.  Wahlberg seems uncomfortable and masks it with rage.   And once again, Matt Damon does all the heavy lifting and gets none of the credit.  His turn as the fatherless boy who is being manipulated by Nicholson is alternately frightening and heartbreaking, yet he remains a very charming sociopath.

The picture whizzes by.  Scorsese effortlessly paces what could have been a morass of a story, providing his signature quick-cut expositions to perfectly chosen music (The Stones, Badfinger, Allman Brothers).

Clint Eastwood’s biopic is lovingly photographed.  Washington, D.C., and other venues, from the teens through the 1970s, are regal, warm and classic. Unfortunately, Eastwood has populated his pretty film with a dull collection of historical figures, none of whom have much to offer. Eastwood also mostly punts on the nature of Hoover, and as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, the character is little more than a one-note old windbag, constantly going on and on about the same thing – the enemy within.  Eastwood’s vehicle for Hoover’s reminisces – Hoover is dictating his memoirs to an ever-changing number of aides- does not help.  As one is replaced, you can almost hear the jettisoned aide saying, “Thank God! What a snooze!”  Oliver Stone’s Nixon gave us a ridiculously lustful and evil Hoover, played by Bob Hoskins, but at least he wasn’t tedious.

Naomi Watts is wholly wasted as Hoover’s long loyal secretary.  Armie Hammer, as Hoover’s long loyal number 2 Clyde Tolson, does a poor version of a young Brendan Fraser (Hammer was last seen in The Social Network playing the Winkelvosses).  Judi Dench’s turn as Hoover’s overdoting mother is predictable.  Josh Lucas’s take on Charles Lindbergh is foggy.  In fact, the only decent performance is a brief appearance by Jeffrey Donovan as a trumped Bobby Kennedy.  Donovan thankfully avoids the standard “Haaaaaaaaahvaaaaaads” and “Baaaaaaahstons” endemic to the role.

Eastwood portrays Hoover as a repressed homosexual, no question.  Which makes Mom upset and Tolson bitter.   And Hoover seems most bothered by Martin Luther King because he overheard King having sex on a wiretap.  Not much of a motivation.  Eastwood even gives in to the dubious cross dressing story, but ennobles it because Hoover gets gussied up in Mom’s clothes after she dies.  Another punt.

Another problem.  DiCaprio’s makeup as an older Hoover is very good.  Hammer and Watts, however, look ridiculous, very similar to the characters in “Star Trek” when they age decades in hours.

“I love you, Edgar.”

Dustin Lance Black’s (Milk) script ends in treacle and nonsense.  Out out of nowhere, Hoover turns moralistic, the man who would stop . . . Nixon!  This prefaces a melodramatic conversation between an old Hoover and Tolson that is straight up “One Life to Live.” When Tolson, doddering in his ridiculous makeup, finds the dead Hoover, it comes close to bringing laughter.

At one point, DiCaprio asks Watts, “Did I kill everything I love?”

Oh if she’d said, “No Edgar.  That was Michael Corleone.  You just bored them to death.”

Two dumb Southerners vie for a North Carolina congressional district, one a Democrat (Will Ferrell), a randy Bill Clinton wannabe, and one a Republican (Zach Galifinakis), who is essentially Ned Flanders. But they are of the same bent, using appeals to God, country, morality, patriotism and the like to sway the voters, who, being Southern, are borderline mentally retarded.  After an unscrupulous campaign that features baby punching, grudge wife screwing and near-maiming, we are all served a lesson in civics.

There are a few very funny gags — Ferrell accidentally leaves a message for his mistress on a phone answering machine while an unsuspecting family is having dinner; Galifinakis uses a book (“Rainbowland”) Ferrell wrote in the second grade to suggest Ferrell is a socialist because, in Rainbowland, everything is free; the baby punching; and Ferrell’s tortured rendition of The Lord’s Prayer at a debate.  But much of it is derivative, either of earlier Ferrell vehicles or the fim itself.  Worse, Ferrell so over-relies on his own brand of wild man antics that you can feel the air release from the movie.  Quite something when it clocks in at a mere 90 minutes or so.  When Ferrell engages in the gibberish-spouting freakout scene, I’m reminded of the story about the late Chris Farley, who once shoved a pool cue up his own ass to get yucks. Ingenuity or desperation? You make the call.

To compensate, we get some political instruction, presumably from producer Adam McKay, who must actually believe that vehicles created for the delivery of fart jokes will also suffice for ideological lessons (he did the same thing in the seminal Ferrell pic The Other Guys, which ended with a primer on the evils of TARP).  In this movie, the Citizens United Supreme Court case is actually cited, and stand ins for the Koch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd reprise the roles of Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche from Trading Places) are wasted when provided with no funny material. There’s also much that is not funny, including a gag where an Asian housekeeper is made to talk black . . . again and again.